On the surface, this grim, stripped-down western seems like a logic continuation of all previous Clint Eastwood westerns – and a very good one at that. Unforgiven is enjoyable and dexterously narrative, with a harrowing onset, a profound character study and an intricate plot situation in which the outcome never seems predictable, despite Clint's presence. That Bill Munny easily could have been an ageing, retired Blondie from Leone's trilogy, 20 years later, puts the film in a timeframe as well as in a thematic progression. But its portrait of the west has more in common with Lonesome Dove than with Leone's films. The only thing is, where Lonesome Dove has a romantic view of the west, Unforgiven is on the other end of the scale.
One most remarkable aspect here is that from the engaging story arises an ambiguity and moral discussion which deglamorizes westerns and its heroes completely. In Unforgiven, the gunfighters aren't the ever-hitting, invincible killers from the myths and legends, and Eastwood spends time pointing out the difference between hero worship (which started during this period) and his own rendition of life in the west. Eastwood is more than ordinarily occupied with the concept of death, and he plunges out to comment the general undermining that the concept of death has been subjected to in traditional western literature. 'Why would death be less horrible in the 1880s?', he asks and accompanies the question with a look into how death affects people – not only from a point of view of vengeance. And the finale, while ostensibly familiar in the genre, opens for an array of readings – it is a thought-provoking ambivalence of winning and losing, of how the lost souls of the west couldn't escape their identities, or detach themselves from the society that produced them. Unforgiven is a pessimistic tale, but at the same time filled with warmth and compassion for its characters – who, in turn, come in every shade of gray.